National News

Kilauea Volcano’s Lava Fields Offer Scientists a Portal to Mars

Posted May 28, 2018 1:02 p.m. EDT

The Kilauea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii has been setting off small earthquakes, creating gas-emitting fissures and releasing flows of lava this month that have destroyed dozens of homes and forced the evacuation of at least 2,000 people.

But some scientists look at the basalt-rich lava fields around Kilauea, which could yet produce more explosions in coming days, and see something else: a portal to Mars, whose surface is mostly composed of basaltic rocks.

A team of biologists, volcanologists, astronauts and other specialists has periodically conducted fieldwork in the Kilauea fields since 2015 as part of a four-year, NASA-led research project. Among the questions they are investigating is how any life on ancient Mars, if it did exist, may have developed.

Basaltic terrain can host a diverse range of microorganisms, leading scientists in Hawaii to focus on the bacteria and other organisms living there, and the factors that enable them to survive.

“The reason why there continue to be questions, and programs like ours that go out and try to answer the questions — Was Mars habitable? Is it currently habitable? — is that nobody really knows,” said Darlene Lim, a geobiologist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and the project’s principal investigator.

Lim’s team is also testing gear and operational systems that astronauts could use during potential future missions to the red planet’s surface.

Lim said an open question is how astronauts exploring Mars should communicate their findings back to earth despite a one-way communications delay — what she called “planetary latency” — that can be anywhere from four to 22 minutes.

“You can’t have an infinite amount of data pumped between both planets,” she added. “It’s very expensive.”

Scientists with the project — which is officially called Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains, or BASALT — say that some of their research for the project will be published later this year in the scientific journal Astrobiology.

The project is one of several continuing ones in and around Hawaii’s volcanoes that have potential interstellar applications.

Another is a NASA-funded behavioral research study in which teams of people live in isolation for months at a “Mars-like” site on the slope of the Mauna Loa volcano, down the road from Kilauea. The study was partly designed to gauge how humans deal with boredom.

“They have to pretend that they can’t go outside without donning rather cumbersome suits,” Scott Rowland, a geologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who helps run a separate “planetary volcano-analog workshop” for graduate students, said of the study’s participants.

Rowland said that while no Martian (or, for that matter, lunar) volcanoes are active, Hawaii’s volcanoes are useful to scientists because they have newly formed faults, craters, calderas and other features that can be studied up close.

“Some of the flows on Kilauea are flowing right this very minute, so obviously features can be super-young,” he added.

This month, Kilauea has been generating steam, volcanic gas, ash clouds and lava, some of which is flowing into the Pacific Ocean and setting off a chemical reaction that produces clouds of acid and fine glass. The activity prompted authorities to evacuate Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where all of the BASALT project’s Hawaii fieldwork has taken place. (It has other research sites in Idaho.)

Lim said her team was not affected by the recent activity because its fieldwork in the park ended in November. But she plans to return to Hawaii’s Big Island this summer, she said, for a project in which researchers will use a robotic vehicle to explore an underwater seamount, also known as an underwater volcano. The project, which is expected to run through at least 2020, is run partly by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NASA says the seamount, known as Lō`ihi, may be an analog to the hydrothermal systems on one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, which has an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust. Scientists have wondered if Enceladus and other icy moons in the outer solar system could be home to microbes or other forms of alien life.

The seamount is an “incredible alien environment,” Lim said. “If you will.”